BURMA/MYANMAR: Farmers rise up at land grab by army-owned company 

The Asian Human Rights Commission has followed closely reports in recent weeks of an uprising by farmers against a takeover of a large area of agricultural land in upper Burma by an army-owned company and a private partner. The land grab, in the Letpadaung Mountain Range of Sarlingyi Township, Sagaing Region, is of some 7800 acres of fertile land, to make way for copper mining. Currently farmers of around 26 villages cultivate the land. The residents of four villages–Siti, Wehmay, Zidaw and Kandaw–have already been forced out of their homes. The grabber is the usual suspect–Myanma Economic Holdings Ltd., a conglomerate of army interests, staffed by retired army officers, along with a joint partner company, Myanmar Wan Bao. In this case the director of the project is one Lt. Col. (Ret.) U Aung Myint.

Farmers in the area began protests and interventions against the confiscation on 2 June 2012, and tensions and conflicts with local authorities have been growing since. According to reports coming daily from the region, the area of confiscated land has been placed under an administrative order declaring it off limits, and local authorities have threatened to prosecute anyone gathering to protest at the land confiscation. Their threats have so far failed to deter demonstrators: since August 24, thousands have been gathering outside company offices in the township to demand that the land be returned to them, and to object to the copper mine project. They have also raised their voices against the uncompensated destruction of crops through the movement of vehicles, dumping of rubbish and other actions by the companies that have adversely affected their lives and livelihoods.

The authorities have responded in typical fashion. On September 10, when a group of women protestors converged to pray symbolically at a monastery in Monywa Town, police closed off a riverine access route and arrested a dozen of them; they released nine but according to the latest reports at time of writing were still holding three, namely, Ma Thwei Thwei Win, Ma Phyu Phyu Win and Ma Aye Net. Hundreds of farmers had also since converged on Monywa Police Station No. 1, where they were being held, to call for their release. Meanwhile, around 20 police and other officials on August 31 detained Ko Wai Lu, a lawyer working with the farmers, as he was on his way to take a group of the people affected by the land confiscation to meet United Nations officials and others in Rangoon. Reportedly, he is being prosecuted under sections 295/295(a)/117 of the Penal Code, for intentional insult to religion. According to last news received by the AHRC, he had not been able to meet anyone since being taken into custody and when other lawyers contacted the local police station, the officers denied that they had the lawyer in their custody, even though a busload of people saw Wai Lu being removed by officials from the vehicle.

The land grab has too many precedents to mention. The sister organisation of the AHRC, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, in a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June warned that Burma is in danger of a land grabbing epidemic (ALRC-CWS-20-03-2012). And in 2011 the AHRC issued an appeal on a similar case in which a group of farmers were themselves prosecuted after a company-backed gang assaulted them (AHRC-UAC-073-2011). In the current case, the army company and its partner entered the area, as in other cases, insisting that they had authority to occupy the land as the copper mine is a “state project”; that is, a project to which no dissent or disobedience is permitted. They then negotiated with the affected farmers, offering them compensation for land and to resettle them. However, the farmers soon found that these promises were hollow, the methods of the companies not those of negotiators but of fraudsters: the amount of compensation given a tiny fraction of the value of the land, it also not taking into account the value of dwellings, monasteries, schools and other immovable property; the amount of land offered at a resettlement site also too small to rear animals or cultivate gardens. The company also offered resettled persons one job per household, but when farmers moved, they found that this offer was for women only, and was merely to do some menial cleaning for an amount of about USD3 per month, which is pocket money.

Not only do the farmers’ recent experiences inform them that the promises made by officials and their collaborators are not to be trusted, but also historical memory too warns them against promises made, later not kept. In 1978, during the period of rule by the former dictator General Ne Win, the government set up a copper mining operation in the area, then too ejecting four villages of their occupants and confiscating over 2100 acres of land. The project failed, but the government did not return the confiscated land to those farmers who had lost it and who would otherwise have continued to cultivate it, for their own benefit and that of society. In 1993, another copper mining project set up nearby villages in the area polluted the area with effluent and other by-products that made the land untenable for crops. And in 2003, the water supply of a number of villages was polluted similarly by a mining project.

The problem for the farmers then, as now, was a problem of enforceability. When officials and companies make promises that they do not keep–to compensate, to relocate, to employ–what option do they have but to stay silent, or to protest? No middle path exists along which farmers can be reasonably expected to go in order to obtain redress, to get what is owed to them. No independent judiciary or credible administrative system exists through which they might make a claim and expect it to be heard with fairness: that is, with a measure of certainty that the process of deliberation, if not the outcome, will contain minimal guarantees. And in this problem of enforceability we encounter a larger problem for all people in Burma in the current period, a problem of profound importance for everyone interested in the country’s current political and social circumstances. When there is no authority that can adjudicate fairly between the interests of an army owned company and those of some farmers, how can we say that the place is becoming less authoritarian, more democratic? What does it mean that those holding positions of authority and influence can win the day against those without, regardless of what rules in fact exist? What does it mean that a commitment once made cannot be enforced? Can a system operating under such conditions be described as no longer authoritarian? Or is it rather a case of one type of authoritarianism in transition to another?

These questions go to some of the larger problems associated with the Letpadaung land grab that make it important to people all around Burma, since they are problems with which millions of people in the country are, in one way or another, concerned. The government of Burma should therefore send a clear signal that enforceability is not, after all, a figment, and that the commitments made to farmers matter a great deal. It should do that much in this case by conceding to the farmers’ demands. To this end, the Asian Human Rights Commission iterates and endorses those demands, each of which constitutes an insistence on the right to enforceability of rights, as follows:

1.    Not to seize agricultural land against cultivators’ will.
2.    To solve the grievances of the farmers fairly.
3.    Not to continue with constructions on the agricultural land without farmers’ approval.
4.    Not to use agricultural land as a dumping ground for industrial waste.
5.    Not to demolish any more villages.
6.    To take steps to prevent copper mining projects from polluting the environment.
7.    To return all religious premises.
8.    To halt the copper mining project in Sarlingyi, subject to further wide-ranging consultations.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-184-2012
Countries : Burma (Myanmar),
Issues : Land rights,